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why we need things

History from Things: Essays on material Culture
Edited by S. Lubar & W.D. Kingery, 1993
Why We Need Things, pp.20-29
Mihali Csikszentmihalyi

This chapter examines the reasons why we are so dependent to objects. Furniture, books, clothing, decorative objects are filling our houses without us thinking about the impacts they have on our self-construction and identity. Why are we so attached to souvenirs, to pictures or to old objects?

The amount of garbage created by our consuming society is unbelievable. Some of those objects that are filling the dumps are definitely dangerous, containing chemicals and being harmful for living organisms. Why then are we still over consuming them? Csikszentmihalyi has an interesting theory about the evolution of objects. They explain that objects are reproducing themselves, similarly to animal species, from one generation of objects to another one. For instance, if you look at cell phones, they are all very similar in shape, construction, and size than their previous models.

Mobile Evolution, 2009, Kyle Bean

This idea is closely linked to Dunne and Raby’s theory of Affirmative design and Critical design discussed in their Design Noir and Hertzian Tales books. Designers who stop looking at previous designs as starting point but really think about news ways of living with objects, embodying a critical view on existing values and ideologies are practicing critical design. An important personality of the 20th century, Buckminster Fuller, is a great example of critical design. His Dymaxion’s houses and cars are a demonstration of how you can turnaround the progression of a manmade object and have a second thought about their utility, materiality and embodied values. Critical design can definitely change the fundamentals of a life style.

Csikszentmihalyi recalls the importance of understanding our relation with objects.

“Most of the things we make these days do not make feel better in any material sense but instead serve to stabilize and order the mind.” (p. 22)

They explain that an external order is creating for human beings a mental stability, that it organizes our life experience.

“It is difficult to understand our psychological dependence on objects as long as we hold to the belief that human beings are naturally in control of what happens in their minds.” (p. 22)

Thinking that we control what is happening in our minds might be false, but this “cozy anthropocentric illusion” is still helping us to have an organized life. But this control stays fragile, and when man has nothing concrete to do and occupy his mind, his mental starts deteriorating. Objects keep grounded on the present, they help you remember the past and plan the future: “without external props even our personal identity fades and go out of focus: the self is a fragile construction of the mind”. (p.22)

Csikszentmihalyi says that there is three major ways that the objects help constructing the self. First, the objects of power can be related to a demonstration of financial power, of gender based strength, of good taste, etc. Second, the objects of continuity of the self are the one that help you constructing your memory, your unique personality. Third and last, the objects of relationships are the one that link you to your social network.

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